Faith v. Work

Objection!

If you’ve spent any kind of time in a Western Protestant church, you’ve undoubtedly been taught, intentionally or otherwise, that all of Paul can basically be boiled down to a single simple Latin (Latin?) phrase: Sola fide.  If you’re not into dead languages (which, for some reason, people keep using!), that’s “faith alone,” as in “you have been justified before God by faith alone.”  Put negatively, you have certainly not been justified or saved by your own works.

Sola fide was among the five solae (it’s a Latin-fest!) that emerged in the Protestant Reformation: Sola scriptura (contra papal bulls & church tradition), Sola fide (contra saving indulgences), Sola gratia (Sola fide‘s twin sister), Solus Christus (contra priestly mediators), and Soli Deo gloria (contra the litany of Catholic saints).  They are all five reactions against perceived abuses within the early 16th century (that was 500 years ago!) church in Europe.

Now, Sola fide was originally meant to combat a tendency in which people within the late Medieval church were aiming to rack up good deeds in order to be accepted by God.  Against this, Martin Luther stood on the notion that one was saved by her faith in Christ rather than any accumulation of godly work she might put forward throughout her life.  After all, “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).  The doctrine continues as a central tenet of Protestant churches, as it should.

But there’s a problem.  By virtue of trickle down theology (which is a thing, sort of), Sola fide has transformed, for many in the church, into a do nothing ethic. If faith is all that matters, then really, what does it matter what you do after you believe? And if someone tells you otherwise, that indeed your actions do matter, your internal Sola fide alarm starts screaming, “Warning! Warning! Legalism alert!”

JR Daniel Kirk puts it this way in Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?:

If we tell a story whose lead is played by a human disposition of faith, we will inevitably create introspective communities, devoid of costly reconciliation and lacking in acts of mercy, because faith as a human disposition is a story of faith without the faithfulness of Christ unto death on a cross (89).

Was your church community hyper-introspective?  There was a reason.

But anyway, was this actually Paul’s ethic?  That is, was Paul actually all faith and no works?

Not at all.  In fact, there’s a good argument to be made that justification by grace through faith was neither Paul’s primary message nor original to him.

Rather, Paul’s ethic, as Kirk is keen to point out in his fourth chapter, is entirely based on the model of Christ.  If Paul ever heard from any of the apostles that Jesus had promised they would do the same sorts of things he did and more (Jn 14:12), he must have taken it to heart.  Paul’s ethic was a christological ethic.  Paul was an imitator of Christ.

Perhaps I’ll get into this more in a subsequent post, but Paul’s life work could be summed up in Philippians 3:10-11, which reads, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.”

Yeah, this should be a second post.  Stay tuned for more on Paul’s works.

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7 thoughts on “Faith v. Work

  1. I understand what you mean by sola fide becoming a “do nothing” ethic but the true spirit of ‘faith alone’ isn’t that we shouldn’t do good works, its that our good works should be a result of our faith. For example, we shouldn’t help the needy to gain salvation but we should want to help the needy because of our faith in Christ and his message.

    1. I don’t disagree with you, Monk, but I think this line of reasoning is generally lost on the average Western believer (though I hope I’m wrong).

  2. It will be interesting to read. I’ve attended a church a couple times now that Jeclaim to teach what Jesus taught – not what Paul taught. They claim that most churches are “pauline churches” and do not teach what Jesus actually taught.

    For me, I feel like people ignore the first part of what Paul taught – “”It has been by grace you have been saved”. So much emphasis is put by different people ob faith and works, but the truth is we are saved by grace. If we do anything to “earn it” including pray the right prayer, it is not by grace. God loves us without condition and died to save us without condition. The emphasis on “faith” makes people think the have something others don’t. The emphasis on works makes people think they are doing things better than others. But the kindness of God leads us to repentence (Romans 2:3). The good new that God loves us so much he’d even die for us lead to faith and works all by grace.

    1. You make a good point about Grace. The term sola fide doesn’t stand alone. The concept is Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Sola Scriptura; meaning Grace Alone that is received by Faith Alone, that is revealed through the Scriptures Alone. Like a train where grace is the engine that pulls the rest.

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